As Reston turns 50, founder Robert Simon looks ahead, celebrates his own milestone

In the beginning, there were 6,750 acres of trees, fields, and cows — and a self-described “Jewish guy from Manhattan” with a yellow legal pad, trying to figure out what to do with this large chunk of land that he was about to buy in the suburbs of Washington.

“So I worked out on the yellow pad,” Robert E. Simon Jr. said, “everything I could think of that I’d seen in the world that appealed to me.” That included vibrant village plazas with both shopping and housing, concentrations of high-rise apartment buildings and clusters of residences that allowed more green space for recreation. It was 1961, and all of these ideas were contrary to how suburbs were then being built.

Simon took title to the rolling Fairfax County acreage soon afterward, and by 1964 the first residents were moving into his “New Town.” Fifty years later, the town he christened with his own initials — Reston — has nearly 60,000 residents and about 60,000 daily workers and is soon to welcome its first Metro stop on the new Silver Line.

On Saturday, Reston plans to celebrate “Founder’s Day” with parties and a new documentary film, and the following week, Simon will celebrate his 100th birthday. He still lives in Reston and enjoys strolling and chatting up passersby in the town he created.

“I think it’s one of the most important experiments, and implemented experiments, in urban planning,” said Uwe Brandes, executive director of the urban and regional planning program at Georgetown University. “Obviously, people like living there, because it’s one of the most popular places to live. That’s a testament in and of itself.”

As Reston, Va. turns 50 years old, the town's founder Robert E. Simon is embarking another milestone -- turning 100. He reflects on the start of Reston and the bustling area it has grown into. (Nicki DeMarco and Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Simon was ahead of his time in designing a suburb with open public spaces and that demanded diversity not only in its housing, but also in the economic strata of its residents, Brandes said.

With its stated goal of being a place where residents could “live, work and play” and its aim to be walkable and livable at all ages, Reston became the bridge between the old “garden cities” concept of the suburbs and the “new urbanism,” said Chris Zimmerman, a longtime Arlington County board member now working with Smart Growth America, an advocacy organization. “A complete community,” Zimmerman said. “And this happened 50 years ago.”

Now that Metro is on its way, the Silver Line promises another jolt of development for Reston, and Simon estimates the town’s population could soar to 100,000. But he is dubious of the costs of rail lines such as Metro and says more needs to be done to keep Reston’s train stops from becoming just another place for people to drive to.

Redevelopment is also in the works for Reston’s original centerpiece, the Lake Anne Village Center, including the addition of 800 residential units nearby. That, Simon said, “is an answer to a prayer” because more than anything else, he still wants Reston to one day be a true walkable community.

“Community,” Simon said. “That word is the whole discussion.”

In the early 1960s, Simon wasn’t so much concerned with his place in history as in creating a great place for people to live. He grew up in Manhattan but after World War II raised his family on Long Island, where he became disillusioned with the amount of time he and his wife spent in the car, driving great distances between shopping and recreation and home.

In New York, Simon ran his family’s real estate business, which owned famed Carnegie Hall. The legendary venue fell on hard times in the 1950s and the family sold it to the city in 1960, giving Simon the money and opportunity to start something new.

A real estate broker presented him with an option in Fairfax County, which Simon had never seen or heard of. So Simon trekked down to the Washington suburb and found economic studies showing that Fairfax, with a population of about 260,000, was poised for rapid growth as Dulles International Airport’s opening neared. “Location, location, location,” Simon said, invoking the old real estate mantra.

And so the real estate man from New York combined his share of the Carnegie Hall proceeds with other financing, and in 1961 he launched the development of Reston. All together, he paid $12.8 million for the 6,750 acres.

He hired consultants. He hired world-class architects, including James Rossant, who designed Lake Anne Plaza, and Charles M. Goodman, who designed one of the first townhouse clusters. He hired social planners. All of them plied him with ideas and concepts, and in 1962 Simon wrote his “Seven Goals” for Reston, the first of which was that “the New Town should provide a wide range of recreational and cultural facilities.” He also declared that a full range of housing styles and prices be available, to allow people to stay in Reston their entire lives.

The critics were thrilled. On the front page of the New York Times, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called Reston “one of the most striking communities in the country” and said, “Reston has had to shatter precedents to make its plan work.”

One of those precedents was segregation. At the time, Virginia had no fair housing laws and had only recently integrated its schools. Chuck Veatch, one of Simon’s original salesmen and still a Reston resident, said, “Bob came in and announced from the start, ‘We’re open to anyone with green money.’ It was a big deal when that was announced. And it was a very quiet revolution.”

But home sales started slowly, and in 1967 one of the project’s largest financial backers, the Gulf oil company, forced Simon out because of the town’s financial problems. That same year, another planned community, Columbia, Md., saw its first residents move in.

While families continued to move into Reston, not everything worked out as planned. Of the seven village centers that Simon envisioned as creating a sense of community, only Lake Anne resembled that vision of shops, businesses and housing in one place. His hopes for multiple high-rises never materialized, so Lake Anne’s retail shops gradually fell into decline or closed. Elsewhere in the town, more conventional strip malls were built instead of the mixed-use plazas surrounded by neighborhoods that are a key to a walkable community.

Still, Reston steadily grew over the next three decades, reaching 30,000 residents by 1980 and more than 50,000 by 1990.

A more diverse population than had previously been seen in western Fairfax began to emerge, with federally subsidized housing attracting new minority residents. Today, census figures show that 37 percent of Reston’s residents are nonwhite.

In 1989, the first phase of Reston Town Center opened. Simon said he thought at the time that the plan to construct a hotel, office buildings and shops all at once was “too grandiose.” Now the area, with an open plaza at its center, is thriving, and Simon said, “I don't see how it could be improved.”

Zimmerman said the Town Center was “very influential” for him as a county supervisor and for developers in the region because it tried to “create an old-fashioned Main Street.” He said Arlington changed its zoning and planning to enable a similar project, Pentagon Row.

As he nears 100, Simon remains remarkably active and fit. When the elevator in his building lost power on a recent afternoon, he promptly walked down 13 stories to Lake Anne Plaza. There, he spoke proudly of Lake Anne’s distinctly 1960s-era architecture while waving to or chatting with a parade of acquaintances. Nearly every longtime Reston resident knows him as “Bob,” and many marvel at his approachability and his willingness to chat about Reston’s past and his passionate ideas for its future.

After Simon was fired from Reston’s development board in 1967, he moved away for a quarter-century, returning for “various ribbon-cuttings and ceremonies,” he said. But in 1993 he moved back, taking an apartment in a high-rise overlooking Lake Anne. He served two terms on the board of the Reston Association of homeowners, then continued to serve on committees and task forces, keeping his hand in the town’s planning process.

“My role is to be a burr in the saddles of decision-makers,” Simon said.

He has been able to watch his creation evolve into its next phase. By 2000, Reston had become the second most populous town in Northern Virginia after Alexandria, and it now has nearly 60,000 residents, according to the Census Bureau. But residential growth had reached a plateau.

Enter Metro.

Three stations are planned. One, along Wiehle Avenue in Reston’s commercial district between Sunset Hills and Sunrise Valley drives, is scheduled to open this year as the first stage of the Silver Line is completed. Two more, near Reston Town Center and on the border with Herndon, are planned as the line is extended to Dulles Airport.

Simon welcomes the apartments, shops and vitality that the Silver Line is likely to bring, but said there needs to be more transit connecting Metro with other parts of the town, because the first station will be two miles from Lake Anne and 1 1/2 miles from Reston Town Center. “It’s an enormous investment,” he said. “I’m wondering who’s going to be using it.”

Simon remains convinced that village centers can create the community that makes Reston distinctive and is thrilled that a developer plans to remake Lake Anne Village Center, where Simon lives. The plan will replace an 180-unit apartment complex with 1,000 townhouse and apartment units, a concept on which Simon was consulted.

“We saw the opportunity to revitalize it and bring [Lake Anne Plaza] back to its glory,” said David Peter, the developer.

Simon has other hopes and visions for Reston, too, including an expanded library, an expanded government center and new 600-seat theater on a seven-acre site near Reston Town Center. He also is pushing for improved architecture, better bus service and eventual air-rights development over the Metro stations.

But simply building more isn’t the goal.

“If you go out in the countryside someplace and build a thousand residential units and have them cheap enough, you’ll probably fill the place up. But that’ s not going to make a community,” he said. “I think having facilities readily available for people of all kinds, from little kids to the elderly — that’s the most important thing of all.”

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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